Self-portraits

Following on from my previous post about portraits, again on Page 49 of the course notes, a research task on self portraits.

“An artist’s self-portrait is historically fascinating as well as being personally significant. Go online and compare the self-portraits of Dürer, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Munch. Amongst more modern works look at self-portraits by Lucian Freud, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Sam Taylor-Wood and Sarah Lucas. What new problems arise when an artist decides to portray themselves?” p49

Dürer

Self-portrait’, 1498 by Dürer

DÜRER, Self-portrait, 1498. Oil on panel, 52 x 41 cm. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/selfportrait/8417d190-eb9d-4c52-9c89-dcdcd0109b5b Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado
DÜRER, Self-portrait, 1498. Oil on panel, 52 x 41 cm. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/selfportrait/8417d190-eb9d-4c52-9c89-dcdcd0109b5b Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado

The first thing I noticed about this portrait was the fabulous hair and clothes, perhaps because its in stark contrast to the portrait of his father whose hair and clothes are rather dull. Dürer has painted himself in a really snazzy outfit. The next thing I noticed was the detailed view out throughout the window. What I didn’t notice until I read the blurb on the website is that he’s painted himself in gloves which is very telling in a historical context. Clearly Dürer is trying to be a social climber and this portrait is helping him do that.

“Dürer has sheathed the hands that he uses to paint in grey kidskin gloves indicative of high rank with the aim of elevating his social status from that of craftsman to artist and of locating painting among the liberal arts, as in Italy.” Museo Del Prado. (2016)

Apparently the inclusion of a view through the window was inspired by this portrait. They do say “steal like an artist”. I’m sure I’ll see a lot of that during this course.

Rembrandt

‘Self Portrait at the Age of 34’ by Rembrandt 1640

Rembrandt, 1606 - 1669 Self Portrait at the Age of 34 1640 Oil on canvas, 102 x 80 cm Bought, 1861 NG672 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG672 Photo © The National Gallery, London
Rembrandt, 1606 – 1669
Self Portrait at the Age of 34
1640
Oil on canvas, 102 x 80 cm
Bought, 1861
NG672
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG672 Photo © The National Gallery, London

This portrait by Rembrandt, painted a century and a half later, has the same three quarter length side-on pose as the Dürer above. At first glance this one looks rather dull in comparison but I tried drawing it and he’s ask wearing some pretty fancy clothes. His shirt and collar garment has some very fine embroidery on it that you only see when you zoom into it on a decent reproduction (such as the excellent National Gallery website) and his jacket is fur trimmed which was probably pretty expensive in those days. I expect you see this much more clearly if you see the painting in person. Here, Rembrandt is 34 but he looks much older around the eyes. The painting is rather gloomy next to the Dürer which is full of light, probably because Rembrandt didn’t paint in a view to the outside, the light is falling n his face but the rest of the picture (his dark clothes and the background) is quite shadowy. According to the blurb on the National Gallery website the Dürer portrait was actually an influence so perhaps the similar pose was not an accident but a revival. Also, looking at the dimensions, this one is twice the size of the Dürer.

“It seems as if Rembrandt refers deliberately to his famous predecessors in this portrait, and thus places himself in the tradition of great ‘Old Masters’.” National Gallery. (2016c)

 

Munch

Self-Portrait with Cigarette’ by Edvard Munch.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Cigarette 1885, Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 85.5 cm, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Photo © National Museum / Høstland, Børre http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/NG.M.00470
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Cigarette 1885, Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 85.5 cm, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Photo © National Museum / Høstland, Børre http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/NG.M.00470

Unlike the first two portraits, this one by Munch doesn’t seem like a social status piece. He appears more like a sketchy sort of dude in the corner of a smokey gentleman’s club. The pose is such that he’s been caught, like a candid photograph might be today. He is lit from below (in my imagination its by some lights on tables in said smokey club) which is probably why he appears a little sinister. Like the first two portraits though, the pose emphases the artists face and hands. Also like the first two, I suppose that technically this pose is also three quarter length, expect that because he’s standing he is represented much smaller in the frame. This is painted two and a half centuries later than the Rembrandt, about the same size and is much more painterly.

van Gogh

‘Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1887

'Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat' by Vincent van Gogh, 1887 oil on canvas, 44.5 cm x 37.2 cm http://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0016V1962 Photo © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
‘Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1887
oil on canvas, 44.5 cm x 37.2 cm
http://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0016V1962
Photo © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Painted only two years later than the Munch (above), this self portrait by Van Gogh is very different and even more painterly! Despite the dour look on his face, this painting seems full of light because of his clever use of colours. The blue of his jacket an the background boldly compliment his bright orange beard. Unlike the first three portraits this artist has chosen NOT to show his hands in the painting. He is painted in a passport photo type pose (before passport photos were invented though) with just the head and shoulders. I’m not sure what this is indicative of though. The painting is also very small compare with the others, even smaller than the Dürer.

Lucian Freud

Reflection (Self Portrait), 1985 (oil on canvas) by Lucian Freud (1922-2011)

One of the downsides of having a public blog is that sometimes images canont be shown for copyright reasons. This image by Lucian Freud is represented by Bridgeman Images which have to be specially licenecd. If you have a Bridgeman Images account you can see the image in the link above, if not I found it also online representing a previous exhibition at the national portrait gallery here.

Medium: oil on canvas, Dimensions: 56.2×51.2 cms

According to the dimensions, this one is about the same size as the Dürer, so smaller than the others mentioned above except the Van Gogh. Like the Van Gogh, this is a head and shoulders pose, no hands, so full focus on the face. Unlike the Van Gogh the colours are of a much more limited palate, all browns and fleshy tones. The (rather harsh) light comes from above which emphasises the artists craggy face and all the contours of his shoulders. Unlike all the portraits mentioned so far, the artist in this one has chosen to remain without clothes. Going from the first two, where they are using the clothes as a statement, to no clothes makes me wonder if this too is some sort of statement? He looks no less self confident and bold so perhaps this is ‘take me as I am’.

 

Bruce Nauman

Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966 (Chromogenic print)  by Bruce Nauman

Dimensions: Sheet (sight): 20 1/16 × 23 15/16 in. (51 × 60.8 cm) Image (sight): 19 1/2 × 23 1/4 in. (49.5 × 59.1 cm)

Another copyrighted image is this self portrait by Bruce Nauman at the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York).

This image is a photograph rather than a painting and like the Lucian Freud picture the artist appears shirtless. Unlike the Freud you can see his hands in the pose, although is that as meaningful for a photographic artist as for a painter?  He is pretending to be a fountain by spitting out (and upwards) a stream of water from his mouth. Its hard to tell much from the tiny image on the Whitney website, the one on this phaidon website is bigger and blacker, not having seen the original I don’t know which would be best to look at.

The lighting is a bit strange, I think there must be two light sources because it looks like its coming from slightly below and left but also from the right. At first I though he was behind glass but looking at the phaidon one I don’t think he is. He’s spitting the water towards the viewer but not really at the viewer. His eyes aren’t really even looking at the camera and his hands are up as though he is surrendering. From the blurb on the Whitney link it explains that its is a pun, he is literally imitating a statue that you might see as a fountain but at the same time his photograph is the work of art. There is also a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fountain (1917).

“During the period in which he made this work, Nauman used the statement “The true artist is an amazing luminous fountain” in a number of text-based works. This playful illustration of the statement satirizes the cliché of the artist as a prolific genius who spews forth a steady stream of masterpieces.” (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2016)

I find it challenging to compare this work to the others listed so far because he’s essentially satirising them. Additionally, its not really just a photograph, as the Phaidon article points out its an “uncanny mix of performance, sculpture, photography and concept art” (Phaidon, 2014)

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #74, 1980 and Untitled #461 2007-08, MoMA, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/#/5/
(Screenshot) Cindy Sherman, Untitled #74, 1980 and Untitled #461 2007-08, MoMA, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/#/5/

Where do I even start selecting a self portrait for Cindy Sherman?! She has so many faces but none of them her own. Cindy Sherman is well known for experimenting with identity in her work from the 1970s onwards. Its pointless to compare one Cindy Sherman with the other self portraits here but the idea of Cindy Sherman’s work can be compared. Like Bruce Nauman, Sherman is turning the idea of a self portrait on its head by not really depicting herself. Also like Nauman, her work is photographic but as a record of performance/concept.

The Museum of Modern Art (New York) has a fair use policy in place so I screenshot the image above from their website from this interactive exhibition mini site showing many Cindy Sherman images. Its amazing how different she looks in each one.

I found this old (2011) interview from the Guardian online with Cindy Sherman really interesting.

“She took photos of herself that were anything but self-portraits; photos that stuck two fingers at the then received wisdom that the camera never lies – her camera always lied. And, through her deceits, she looked for truths about identity, vulnerability and power.”  (Hattenstone, 2011)

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson

formally Sam Taylor-Wood.

‘Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare’ by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Sam Taylor-Johnson Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare 2001 Framed: 63 3/8 x 44 1/2 in. (161 x 113 cm) C-Print http://whitecube.com/artists/sam_taylor-johnson/ Photo © 2016 White Cube - used with permission
Sam Taylor-Johnson
Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare
2001
Framed: 63 3/8 x 44 1/2 in. (161 x 113 cm)
C-Print
http://whitecube.com/artists/sam_taylor-johnson/
Photo © 2016 White Cube – used with permission

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s self portrait is another photograph. Its a full body pose with a stuffed hare in one hand and the camera trigger in the other. Like the first couple of portraits, She’s dressed up a bit, she’s wearing a single breasted suit but also trainers, as if she didn’t want to dress all the way up.

Her foot is out at and angle so her weight rests on one leg. She’s standing on a marble floor and with her pose kind of reminds me of a statue, I wonder if she’s doing a surreal sort of version of something like Nauman? From the tiny reproduction above I cannot really tell whether she is gazing at the viewer or just passively forward (like a statue).

The White Cube blurb doesn’t mention the portrait specifically but the blurb on the NPG site does and whatever I was expecting it say it wasn’t this:

“This defiant self-portrait was included in Mute at White Cube 2, an exhibition infused with references to the fragility of life following the artist’s battle with cancer. The stuffed hare is both a traditional symbol of lust and passion and also a reference to the loss of hair associated with chemotherapy treatment.” (National Portrait Gallery, 2016)

Its on display in room 33, I might see if I can visit it when I go there. From the dimensions its quite big for a print so its probably quite impressive in person.

Sarah Lucas

Medium: Digital print on paper
Dimensions: Image: 745 x 514 mm, support: 760 x 565 mm, frame: 910 x 650 x 33 mm

Since the copyright is with the artist rather than the Tate I have only provided a link to this one too.

(From Self-Portraits 1990-1998)

Another photographic self portrait. This is also a full body portrait like the Taylor-Johnson one however it is very different. In comparison, this portrait is very scruffy. She is lounging in a chair with very bad posture (unlike the stiff pose of Taylor-Johnson) and in very dressed down clothes, teeshirt, ripped jeans, shoes without socks etc. The view point of the camera is interesting, as if the viewer is standing looking down on Lucas. She is staring challengingly at the viewer as if daring them to mention the two fried eggs on her breasts. Where I was surprised at the cancer influence of the Taylor Johnson, I wouldn’t be surprised if, when I read the blurb, this one is similarly inspired. Not sure what else the eggs might mean? Messy eater? Unlikely. Eggs and breasts are often symbols of fertility and life.

The posh-looking checkered marble floor and plain white door background of the Taylor-Johnson portrait look to have almost been parodied here (expect this work came first) with nasty looking black and white square lino, fags and ashtray visible by the chair and a cluttered untidy background. The whole place, (including the artist), looks like it could do with a wash. A far cry from the social climbing status portraits in the earlier part of this post.

Ok, after reading the Tate write up on this one I’m again surprised. It hadn’t occurred to me that the eggs might just mean that she’s got breasts! It seems that in other photographs she looks more masculine than in this one so she’s using that as a theme to explore female objectification and stereotypes through her work. Also, the clothes, the pose, ciggies and perhaps even the layer of grime are enhancing her masculinity for the eggs to work their magic in the photograph. When seen in the context of the series this is more obvious.

“In all these images her gaze back at the viewer is direct and uncompromising. Food representing or standing in for sexual body parts is a common theme in Lucas’s work, mainly employed to reveal and subvert degrading objectification of the body in vernacular language.” (Tate, 2001)

 

Reflection

I found it quite difficult to compare the portraits across different mediums and different time periods. I think this must get easier with practice, and also easier the more general knowledge of different time periods you have (what this course is all about really). The older images are hard to interpret because I don’t have the historical context knowledge yet. The modern images are challenging to interpret because they are more conceptual and sophisticated. So, back to the question ‘What new problems arise when an artist decides to portray themselves?‘ I’d say that they have to decide how they wish people to see them. They have to decide what the portrait is for before doing it because it will be analysed and assumptions will be made. When you are having your portrait done by someone else, there are two people in the representation (the sitter and the artist) so analysis and assumptions can be pinned to the wrong person. When the artist is the sitter there is no room for doubt.

Part Two of the Question/Task

From the Course Notes:

“As part of your research you might wish to visit the National Portrait Gallery website http://www.npg.org.uk Choose two or three portraits for special study, as described above.

Have you ever attempted a self-portrait? If not, now might be a good opportunity to give it a try. Even if you don’t feel brave enough to attempt one, think about how you’d explain yourself visually to others. What would you include? What would you leave out? ” p49

As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m planning on visiting the National Gallery for the Assignment visit, since the National Portrait Gallery is right next door it would be silly not to go in.

Presuming that we’re not talking about selfies with whalesharks here, I have actually done a couple of self portraits in the past but they have more in common with Cindy Sherman than with the others. Not because of make-up or anything but because the images reveal little about me. Here they are:

Masked Ball Wardrobe Disaster
Masked Ball Wardrobe Disaster, 2009

This image was part of a challenge to do a ‘selfie with a mask’ in 2009. I wanted the image to be funny. I had various technical challenges though, mainly the lack of space to shoot (my flat was very tiny). My knowledge of photography was just beginning, I look at this now and see all the newbie clangers like horrible white balance etc. Also, this was the first time shooting myself (and I don’t really shoot people anyway) and the first time trying to composite images in this way. All in all I don’t think I did a bad job, considering. I still find it amusing even if no one else does!

Self Portrait in water droplets, 2012
Self Portrait in water droplets, 2012

The second self portrait was from 2012, I can’t remember why now but I wanted to have many tiny me across the image so this was sort of an experiment.

I find it interesting as I look at these now that I’ve obscured my face in them both (with masks and sunglasses). I don’t usually wear dresses or low cut tops (mainly because I have a small scar across my chest) so the people in the first image didn’t really feel like me but I’ve left the scar on my chest in rather than cloning it out because then it really wouldn’t be me, I think I’d only remove anything transient and the scar is permeant. I guess than answers what I’d not leave out, perhaps these do reveal more about me than I’d realised at the time.

 

References:

National Gallery. (2016c) Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 34 At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-34
(Accessed on 16 January 16)

Nasjonalmuseet. (2016) Edvard Munch in the National Museum, Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1895 At: http://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/collections_and_research/our_collections/edvard_munch_in_the_national_museum/Self-Portrait+with+Cigarette%2C+1895.b7C_wljWXL.ips
(Accessed on 17 January 16)

Van Gogh Museum. (2016) Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat At: http://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0016V1962
(Accessed on 17 January 16)

White Cube. (2016) Artists – Sam Taylor-Johnson At: http://whitecube.com/artists/sam_taylor-johnson/
(Accessed on 21 January 16)

Museo Del Prado. (2016) Self-portrait, DURERO, ALBERTO At: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/-self-portrait/8417d190-eb9d-4c52-9c89-dcdcd0109b5b
(Accessed on 24 January 16)

Whitney Museum of American Art. (2016) Bruce Nauman, Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966-67, printed 1970 At: http://collection.whitney.org/object/5714
(Accessed on 25 January 16)

Phaidon. (2014) How Bruce Nauman pushed photography forward At: http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/october/15/how-bruce-nauman-pushed-photography-forward/
(Accessed on 25 January 16)

MoMA. (2012) Interactives – Cindy Sherman At: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/
(Accessed on 25 January 16)

Hattenstone, S. (2011) ‘Cindy Sherman: Me, myself and I’ In: The Guardian [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/15/cindy-sherman-interview
(Accessed on 25 January 16)

National Portrait Gallery. (2016) Sam Taylor-Johnson (Sam Taylor-Wood) (‘Self-portrait in Single-breasted Suit with Hare’) At: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw58423/Sam-Taylor-Johnson-Sam-Taylor-Wood-Self-portrait-in-Single-breasted-Suit-with-Hare
(Accessed on 26 January 16)

Tate. (2001) Sarah Lucas, Self Portrait with Fried Eggs 1996 At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lucas-self-portrait-with-fried-eggs-p78447
(Accessed on 26 January 16)

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